Episode 8: Flipper Lifter

Christa Mrgan: As flightless birds, penguins are missing out. Sure, they can swim well, and they waddle around in professional animal tuxedos, but clearly, nature failed to give them what they need the most: elevators! Elevators controlled by you and a crank, specifically.

Do you have the speed and skills to get them where they need to go on time, while avoiding the terrifying oversized birds who want to eat them?

Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from designers and developers and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank! This week, I’m talking with some of the folks from Serenity Forge, about their fast-paced penguin- moving game, Flipper Lifter.

Slight spoiler alert: we talk about the mechanics of the game and some of the enemies you’ll encounter. Oh. And I kind of already spoiled that bit just now, when I mentioned those terrifying oversized birds. Anyway, let’s meet the team:

Samuel Herb: I’m Samuel. I did all of the art and some of the design for Flipper Lifter.

Kevin Zhang: And my name is Kevin Zhang and I was the general project manager.

Erik Coburn: Hey, I’m Erik Coburn, and I was the developer on Flipper Lifter for the Playdate.

So Flipper Lifter is a game where you are an elevator manager that carries penguins up and down to the various floors they need to get to, but you’ll have to watch out for various hazards and the penguins will get angry and frustrated and stomp off. And it’s just a quick, fast- paced, high scoring game.

Christa Mrgan: Yes it starts off kind of mellow, but the pressure quickly wraps it up as more and more penguins show up floors, keep getting added to the level as you play. And some levels even have elevators that move sideways in addition to up and down. But we’ll get to that. First: how did the team hear about Playdate?

Kevin Zhang: So I think chronologically, I was the first one to actually hear about it from a more kind of probably biz dev perspective. You know, me and our CEO Z have known Nick Suttner for quite a number of years.

Christa Mrgan: Nick Suttner helps Panic with game publishing and business development and connected the Playdate team with some of the developers who ended up making games for Season One. And he’s a co-founder of game studio Furniture and Mattress. Anyway!

Kevin Zhang: And so I believe he was the first one to kind of reach out to us about possibly doing a game like this for, for this new crazy little device.

Samuel Herb: I heard about it through Serenity Forge.

Kevin Zhang: So Serenity Forge is a game development and publisher 's studio based out of Boulder, Colorado. We started around 2014 and really started off as developers and continue to do a lot of development work even to this day. But a few years ago we also kind of started a publishing branch that really started off as something more experimental, but has since then really grown into you know, kind of a full business in of itself to the point where, you know, nowadays we’re even doing kind of physical releases in addition to digital console releases.

And getting them into stores like Target and Game Stop and Best Buy. So yeah, we’re doing kind of a lot of things working on a lot of really cool projects and especially on the development end as well, you know, we’re doing kind of more bigger scope projects these days as well. Some of which we hope to announce soon.

And yeah, for a Playdate, we just kind of started talking about ideas and it was something I think a lot of people at our studio was really interested in, in doing something with, and, you know, through kind of internal pitching and stuff like that we ended up with kind of a core team of you know, Erik and Samuel making Flipper Lifter.

Samuel Herb: It being a weird piece of hardware, it’s very up my alley. So I was immediately really interested in, in working with it. Anytime there’s an opportunity to work with new hardware I take it. And especially it’s, it’s just so cute. It’s it’s yellow and there’s a crank on it. I couldn’t, I couldn’t not work on that project.

Erik Coburn: Yeah, right off the bat, like the whole team was pretty interested in what we could do with this, what gameplay opportunities there are for a crank. Like that’s, that’s not something anyone’s really seen or worked with before. So yeah, the internal pitch meeting where we were just coming up with like, what game do we wanna do with this?

Like, it had a pretty positive energy the entire time. And we were bouncing off a lot a lot of ideas with it.

Christa Mrgan: So with all of those ideas bouncing around, where did the idea for Flipper Lifter come from?

Erik Coburn: It originally came from me. And my, my whole focus with it was. I wanted to do something with a crank that could be represented with any other input device. And the initial idea with it was you’d use the crank to move up and down, but also one of the initial ideas was if you crank too fast, then the cable could snap and the elevator falls.

But when we got the core motion of the elevator going and like had some weight, attributed it to it with with more penguins, like they really felt. It felt like such a clean interface that there was, there was no need to add anything more to it. it worked just on that simple premise,

So, a lot of the other ideas a lot of them were focused on using the crank as a substitute for something. And there were a lot of ideas of like using it as an analog stick, basically where it’s just directional or other game ideas had it where like you would have to crank as fast as you can. And like, that was a little sketchy in my mind, at least just for the same reason button mashing isn’t exciting, like, you don’t wanna wear out the components doing something monotonous.

Kevin Zhang: Because this was such a small team, it really was just I think fundamentally just Erik and Samuel kind of collaborating together on just designing and developing the entire game with me not really needing to be involved whatsoever until they started calling me over to make penguin sounds for like an hour which was the most I was involved directly in the game.

Christa Mrgan: Yes, the penguin sounds are excellent! But it turns out Kevin nearly missed his calling for penguin voice over work, because the characters weren’t always penguins.

Samuel Herb: So they were originally just sprites of people. And actually Erik just shared an old video of one of the early builds with us and it looks so depressing and so I think at one point I just wanted to make them something else and because the screen is black and white, penguins just made sense. And because of their size on screen, they could be represented really well with a, a fairly simple Sprite.

And so I said that idea and then, you know, went off to Photoshop and in like a couple of hours, we had all the people replaced with penguins and the game was far better for it.

Which, I think, I forget if that was your idea, Erik, or if it was mine, but it’s the type of thing that working at such a small team is really delightful. Is someone has a random idea and you can just implement it and put it in and see how it feels.

Christa Mrgan: The penguin sprites being inspired by the one- bit Playdate screen makes perfect sense.

Samuel Herb: Yeah I’ve done pixel art before, but this was the, the first time working in one bit black and white. I really, really loved it. Like just having that much of a limitation actually forces you to solve problems in really interesting ways. I also, just as a side note, I really, really love the screen.

Like not having a back light and being able to play it outside is I actually, I’m one of the people who really miss non- back lit screens from the game boy, even though everyone else didn’t like them . But yeah, no, like solving how to like how to render a gradient or just how to communicate you know, motion or making things so they, they read well, were all like really interesting challenges and also you were kind of forced to do a style that was very economical. Like it was, it was a style that me as one artist could, could easily handle all the art for this game, just because it’s you know, it all is by necessity very simple. A really quick thing about using 1-bit art style is that the type of dithering you use is really important. So because our game tends to scroll vertically, I created a specific type of dithering that looked good when scrolled vertically which also in, in the developer forms, like other people were asking about this, 'cuz if you just have a checkerboard pattern, you try to scroll it it’ll end up flickering.

So there’s, there’s ways around that, but yeah, that was like an interesting problem to solve.

And from the art side it makes things more difficult, but I do find it very rewarding. Like we’re all fairly young, but I feel like it gives me some impression of what it would be like to work on some of the older consoles with very, you know, specific ways of doing graphics. I just find it a very interesting process to go back to like, first of all, a truly 2d rendering engine, which are hardly not seen anymore. I mean, most 2d games are still using 3d graphics APIs. So it’s just, it’s a very interesting dive into how to actually work with a 2d graphics engine.

Christa Mrgan: And the 2d graphics engine, wasn’t the only learning curve for the team. Using Lua, and the Playdate SDK itself, were also new for developer Erik Coburn.

Erik Coburn: So, I’ve never worked in this programing language before, so that was a new process to learn and everything. But yeah, one of the uh, one of the biggest hurdles was just the memory management of it. ’ Cause with the game there’s gonna be dozens or hundreds of penguins. There’s all the different floors.

There’s all the particle effects and working in Unity, which is what pretty much all our other projects are in, that’s that’s all handled on the back end. That’s part of the engine. But here that needed to be handled more manually. So it was my first time, like writing that kind of garbage collection, handling the destruction of all these elements that we don’t need anymore.

And aside from the difficulty balancing, that was, that was the main thing that kept coming back from QA. Just making sure the game doesn’t lag as it goes on longer.

Christa Mrgan: QA stands for "quality assurance." In game development, QA involves play testing a game start to finish multiple times, documenting glitches and bugs. Panic did some in-house QA for Playdate Season One games, and also worked with Plastic Fern, which is a development studio that does everything from platform porting and release management to sound design and quality assurance.

Kevin Zhang: Working with Panic, and also through Panic, working with Plastic Fern, was a very kind of straightforward and pretty painless experience.

Christa Mrgan: Another aspect of QA and gameplay testing is pointing out where the gameplay may be too challenging or even impossible.

Erik Coburn: When it comes down to the difficulty, that was, that was the hardest thing to balance in all of it. Cuz it did still need to feel random, but it needed to be something that you couldn’t just go on forever with. So it needed to. Accelerate to a point where the player would lose, but not where it felt like you just hit a brick wall.

So probably like at least half the development time was spent just fine tuning that, figuring out how to make that feel right, and making it work. A lot of play testing went into that balance.

Christa Mrgan: Finding that just right level of difficulty does seem like a tricky thing to fine tune. So how does that play into level design? And is there a set number of penguins for each floor on a given level, or is it different every time you play?

Erik Coburn: All the penguins are randomly chosen. And, some of the later levels, the types of floors you get are mostly random. On the harder floors, like the mines where you have multiple elevator shafts to switch between those are placed every so many floors. So you always have a good switching point.

Christa Mrgan: Those levels were especially challenging for me, suddenly having multiple elevator shafts to switch between created this extra layer of chaos and time crunch, that, honestly gave me flashbacks to waiting tables, which I was really bad at in real life.

Samuel Herb: And as for the like themes at the level, I think early on, we had a big list of levels that we wanted to do just riffing on crazier and crazier ideas of what you could do with elevators. And the ones that, that made the most sense or like had an interesting gameplay hook were the ones that ended up getting in.

But yeah, the later levels, it goes places.

There was ideas of having like half of the level be submerged under water and having mermaids where the people could only go to people floors. And the mermaids could only go to mermaid floors. This was before they were penguins. There was like a secure facility where there were like security levels at each floor.

And so only certain people could go to those floors. but a lot of those ideas, we either tried and they just weren’t that interesting or we liked other ideas better.

Christa Mrgan: For one bit black and white birds, the penguins have a lot of personality, thanks to project manager, Kevin Zhang!

Kevin Zhang: I’m very proud of the fact that I was the voice of all the penguins and our development director on another project she was the voice of the seagulls or, or wait, sorry. I hope they’re seagulls.

Samuel Herb: They’re like seagull eagles but yeah, there is a bird that, that chomps down on some penguins.

Kevin Zhang: There we go.

Erik Coburn: So most of the sounds come from another person on our team, who’s not in this call, Parker, Davis, and yeah, he handled the sound design for all of it. He kind of oversaw the the voice acting we’ll call it. But yeah, that was like, I don’t know, a couple days work for him and we were set for the game.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. The sound design is simple and effective. And David Foreman composed all of the music, which really adds to the suspense and drama of the various levels. the music ranges from subtly ominous, orchestral pieces to jangly rag, time piano.

That kind of makes it feel like you’re directing a silent film.

And so overall, how was the experience of making a game for Playdate?

Kevin Zhang: Honestly, like as far as, you know, managing, producing goes, this was a, a just a very painless experience in general, which obviously kind of being in the creative video game industry, it’s not always the case with every single project. So I appreciated the entire process in general from that perspective.

Christa Mrgan: And now that Flipper Lifter is about to be in a bunch of people’s hands, what do Samuel, Erik and Kevin hope their experiences will be?

Samuel Herb: I hope it is a, a brief respite for, for people. It’s supposed to be a very like casual pick up and play game.

Erik Coburn: Spend a couple minutes here and there just shooting for a high score. It’d be a great game to just hand off to a friend to show the Playdate, play this little game. Just for that quick arcade taste of what the Playdate can do.

Kevin Zhang: I can’t wait for Playdate to come out and just, just see like what everyone thinks of all the awesome games.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah! hope you have a great time keeping these penguins safe while you deliver them to and fro in Flipper Lifter from Serenity Forge. You can learn more about the company and the team from the links in the show notes.

Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more episodes, coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed.

Kevin Zhang: Thank you so much.

Samuel Herb: Thank you. See.

Kevin Zhang: Bye.

Christa Mrgan: The Playdate Podcast was written, produced and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song. Additional music was composed by David Foreman and sound effects were by Kevin Zhang, Kersti Kodas, and Parker Davis, and they all come from Flipper Lifter.

Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website, James Moore, for making me an awesome Playdate audio extraction app, and Neven Mrgan, who created the podcast artwork and site design.

And thanks, as always, to everyone at Panic. Playdate is shipping now and available for pre-order at play.Date.

Kevin Zhang: Can I please add that this was literally an elevator pitch just now?